After weeks of repeated denials from Town Hall chiefs that the council is broke, last night there was a refreshing outbreak of frankness by an official.
KEN LEE reports
One of the council’s most senior officials last night admitted: “I can’t guarantee that we won’t issue a Section 114 notice.”
Lisa Taylor is Croydon Council’s chief finance official, and she was speaking at a specially summoned meeting of the Town Hall scrutiny committee, called to seek further detail into the council’s financial woes.
A Section 114 notice is issued when a local authority cannot deliver a balanced budget. Only one other council, Northamptonshire in 2018, has had to ‘fess up to be broke in such a manner in the past 20 years. Now, it appears, Croydon could be among several councils forced to issue a S114, in part, at least, because of the additional financial demands caused by the covid-19 emergency.
Taylor’s frank admission comes despite previous assurances offered by the council CEO, Jo Negrini, and the leader of the Labour-run council, Tony Newman, that Croydon would not be issuing a Section 114 notice.
Taylor’s position to the committee appeared to suggest that unless Croydon is handed a significant bail-out from Whitehall, she would have no option but to issue a S114 notice, effectively handing the running of the council over to the MHCLG – Robert Jenrick’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
As one well-placed insider at Fisher’s Folly said today, “At this point, there has to be a Section 114, surely?
“Now Negreedy is off, they can go for S114 and Newman can try and blame her on her way out.
“We are already there anyway – regardless of the label they give it. The MHCLG will attach so many conditions and have final sign-off, so it might as well be one.”
Taylor confirmed to the scrutiny committee Inside Croydon’s earlier reports that the council had been working together with MHCLG and CIPFA – the local council accountancy body – to find ways for Croydon to try to swerve the admission of defeat inherent in issuing a S114 notice.
In a council report published in February this year – ahead of the Town Hall budget-setting and before the coronavirus lockdown – Taylor had warned that the council was already in a perilous position, with £1.5billion debt and just £10million in reserves.
Taylor’s written report to the scrutiny committee last night said, “At the time of writing this report, I as the Section 151 officer for Croydon Council cannot give full assurance that the council will be able to deliver a balanced budget in 2020-2021 or future years.” Our italics added for emphasis.
“This is… due to a number of different factors and financial pressures that have impacted the council since the start of the covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. I can confirm that the Executive Leadership Team and cabinet are working together supported by the work of the Financial Review Panel and external partners including MHCLG and CIPFA to manage the budget and balance it.
“However, if at any time I do not feel that these plans are developing at the right pace or are actually not deliverable I will have no choice but to issue a Section 114 notice.”
WHERE THE COUNCIL JOB CUTS WILL FALL
Inside Croydon first reported that the council was on the brink of going broke three months ago. In the past few days, BBC London television, Property Week, the Local Government Chronicle and even the Financial Times have followed up our reports.
Taylor and Councillor Simon Hall, the cabinet member for finance, had been summoned to the scrutiny committee after their reports last month were deemed “do not provide sufficient detailed information”.
Sean Fitzsimons, the Labour councillor who chairs the scrutiny committee, expressed some surprise that Taylor was the most senior council official to attend the meeting. In the absence – officially of annual leave – of chief executive Jo Negrini, Fitzsimons said, “I had expected to have a member of the executive team here today.”
Fitzsimons had been told that Shifa Mustafa, the council’s executive director in charge of planning and development, was to have attended. But she clearly had more important things to deal with, and was a no-show.
The scrutiny committee call-in had sought “re-assurance that deletion of posts, previously filled by contractors, do not denude those teams of skills and experiences to deliver an effective service”.
The council is making 15 per cent cuts, which amounts to more than 400 jobs.
The meeting failed to demand any clarification on the position of Jo Negrini as chief executive, though Fitzsimons did refer, euphemistically, to “recent events” and referenced yesterday’s report in the Local Government Chronicle which – irony of ironies for Labour councillors who have been banned from mentioning this website – cited Inside Croydon’s coverage of the CEO’s departure.
Hall was allowed to wriggle off the hook and avoided updating the scrutiny committee on Negrini and her pay-off negotiations, saying it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment at this time. But he did not deny Negrini is leaving.
Ahead of the meeting, Hall had sent an email to Labour councillors advising them that the redundancy consultation period had been extended, as the trades unions had requested.
The deadline had been last Friday. It will now continue until September 9.
This, Hall told the meeting, is so that “exec directors have time to consider any representations that have been made”.
Which sort of puts into context the fortnight’s annual leave taken by chief exec Jo Negrini bang in the middle of the consultation to determine which of her staff are to lose their jobs.
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